By Riva Menon
In a society shifting from multicourse meals and fine dining to takeout boxes and home delivery, the food scene started changing long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic further expedited this process, and the businesses that did survive had to pivot quickly.
Kate Heller, the owner of Leo’s Bread, has had more success in the past year than would be expected for a small, relatively new business. When she was a college student in Michigan, she started baking pizzas after learning how to build an oven. When she graduated college in 2010, shortly after the stock market crashed, she was desperate for a job. When she was offered a job in a bread bakery in California, she jumped at the chance.
She then moved to New Orleans, and in 2014, she started Leo’s Bread. She was selling bread out of the trunk of her car, but her business grew quickly through word of mouth. Before the pandemic hit, she was finally starting to consider opening a physical store. While the world stood at a standstill, Heller did not. She was continuing to sell bread at the Crescent City Farmers Market two days a week and starting a home delivery service, which delivered to around seventy houses twice a week.
“I announced it on Instagram, and within thirty minutes, I sold out. Fifteen hundred dollars worth of stuff – a huge amount…and I kept selling out. It got busier over the pandemic. People will always eat bread, so we thrived during the pandemic. Being so busy made me more confident about opening, and it felt good to be making people so happy,” Heller says.
Similar to Heller’s belief that people will always need bread, Sebastian Boudreaux, a barista at Mojo Coffee House, believes that people will always make time for coffee. Because of that, the coffee industry has suffered less than many others.
“I feel like the coffee industry is a lot less affected than other places. It definitely slowed down a lot, but I feel like people still try to go out to get coffee. The way that everything has been set up has changed, but we’re back to normal now.”
At 3:00 pm on a Monday afternoon – a “quiet” time at most coffee shops – Boudreaux is still hard at work. Boudreaux is a young barista from Lake Charles and has been working in the industry for the past seven years. He enjoys his work and thinks that being a barista at Mojo is a “really chill profession, and the owners are really accommodating and real people, as opposed to working for a big corporation.”
Mojo Coffee House is a quaint neighborhood café with a relaxed atmosphere conducive to studying and chatting with friends. The Freret location, one of many, which opened a few years after the flagship Magazine Street location, is situated on a lively stretch of restaurants and cafés. Despite the many coffee options in the area, Mojo is almost always full. It is the type of place that old friends immediately think of when suggesting a place to catch up.
Unlike Leo’s Bread and Mojo Coffee House, not all businesses were so lucky – many bars and dine-in restaurants struggled to break even, since they were forced to close for several months. Steve Watson grew up working in the kitchen of his family’s pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. He wanted to use his knowledge of pizza and casual dining to model his own restaurant after. He even used the menu at his parents’ restaurant as inspiration.
Watson had spent a lot of time at bars growing up; not only was he a bartender and a musician, but his dad also owned a bar. After Watson had a child, he realized he needed to find a more serious career path, so he decided to open a neighborhood bar, The Kingpin. Its success gave him enough experience and customers to be able to open Midway Pizza ten years later.
Sitting on a barstool in the purple-walled restaurant, Watson is surrounded by the hustling staff, preparing for the lunch crowd. He jokes around and chats with his servers, and he greets them with fist bumps. Based on his calm and jovial demeanor, it is hard to imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on his business.
“We had to scale things down, and we lost a lot of employees. We had to pivot out of that…and we’re still getting out of that. For a little while, people were like ‘alright, let’s get back in’ but people are still hesitant to come in the restaurant, so I think that still affects us,” Watson explains. He hopes that things will soon be back to how they were pre-COVID.
Even now, Watson says that the restaurant structure has been changed. Takeout orders make up a large portion of their business, and with the rise of delivery apps like UberEats, restaurants are keeping less of their profits because these delivery services take a twenty percent cut. Midway Pizza allows customers to order online on their website, but many people still choose to order on delivery apps.
Many businesses, like Midway Pizza, depend on an inviting atmosphere and customers dining in, so they have faced similar issues because of the restrictions. Due to COVID-19, indoor dining restrictions were created to limit the number of people who could dine in based on the establishment’s capacity and the customers’ vaccination status. Restaurants were able to survive because of delivery and takeout orders, but coffee shops were not so lucky. Instead, coffee shops had to cut back on the services they offered; Mojo Coffee House had hired someone to make food and pastries in previous years, but they have decided to stop providing as many food options after the pandemic. They still sell some small pastries and baked goods.
“We used to have a specific person who would supply food, but it wasn’t the most profitable to have that around during this time. We still have people who are coming in specifically for food, and we have some food, but it hasn’t affected everything overall,” Boudreaux says.
Even though people generally consider coffee to be a necessity and sales are returning to pre-pandemic times, many coffee shops are not generally performing as well as they used to. Employees in this industry, like Boudreaux, have faced many personal and work-related hardships in the past few months due to COVID-19, which were further exacerbated by Hurricane Ida.
“I’m still personally recovering from that [Hurricane Ida]. I was gone for a couple months, and I just got back into town when Ida hit, so I was struggling to get a job when I got back. It was just terrible to get everything, even food, sorted out.” Luckily, Boudreaux – who had several years of experience as a barista and previously worked at Mojo pre-Ida – was hired back at Mojo after the hurricane.
Heller agrees that surviving in this industry is extremely difficult, despite her pandemic success. “It’s the hardest thing ever, being a business owner. The hurricane happened, and we had to throw everything out. Then, after a week of reopening, someone robbed us in the middle of the night, and we lost a bunch of money and had to buy a new register. You have to stay chill and flexible.”
She attributes much of her success to this flexibility. She struggled for a long time and had a small business going into the pandemic. Having a small business with no other employees actually benefited her, since she did not have to fire people or pay for a bakery space. She was able to expand her business and get a storefront recently, but she still makes sure to add flexibility by continuing to participate in the Farmers Market. Bread is only good for a few days, so whatever she bakes that does not get sold at the store, goes to the market. That way, she can sell everything, which is incredibly important for a new business.
Watson believes that his success is due to being smart, diligent, and conscientious, in addition to a little luck. According to him, anyone can have a business, but not everyone carefully keeps track of their costs and makes a great product. He believes that the best part of his restaurant is that anyone can go there and enjoy the quality food, service, and overall vibe. When asked to describe her bakery, Heller echoed Watson’s belief in a quality product leading to success.
“Our ultimate goal is to make the most delicious and most beautiful things we can. We don’t take shortcuts, everything is handmade, and we use good quality ingredients. People aren’t dumb. If things are good, they notice. For the longevity of a business, it makes sense to make good stuff. You can be in the French Quarter and make junk, and get a steady stream of tourists, but we are a neighborhood bakery, and we rely on locals.”